Good Hair Ain’t Half Bad
When I first heard that comedian Chris Rock produced a documentary exploring the complex and complicated relationship black women have with their hair, I thought, uh-oh. It’s no secret that Rock’s brand of humor often involves taking women, especially black women, to task where love and relationships are concerned. If he approaches this sensitive subject in a similarly acerbic way, I concluded, he’s going catch heat from a whole lot of sisters who will certainly take offense.
Fortunately Rock doesn’t go there in Good Hair. The film is funny in the way you’d expect this type of comedic documentary to be. There’s plenty of humorous beauty and barber shop banter, where stylists and clients weigh-in on the topic of good hair and the lengths many black women go to in order to sport straightened ‘dos. Extension-wearing celebrities like Nia Long, Raven-Symoné, Meagan Good and Salt-N-Pepa good-naturedly admit to wearing faux tresses and explain their choices (for black actresses trying to get roles in Hollywood, it seems, weaves just come with the territory).
Rock even includes popular back-in-the-day commercials for products like Vigorol and Dark & Lovely relaxers that are comical for their ‘70s era campiness. And what film about black hair would be complete without the requisite visit to a hair show? Rock heads to Atlanta for the annual Bronner Brothers trade show, where hairstyling competitions reach Olympic proportions with plenty of Vegas-style glitz.
While Rock never really breaks from playing funny man – he is a comedian after all – he does a commendable job of revealing some sobering facts about the multi-billion-dollar black hair products industry. He visits a chemist whose gross-out show-and-tell demonstrations about the dangers of sodium hydroxide, the active ingredient in relaxers, silenced viewers in the theater. Asian beauty supply owners give frank opinion on why “black” hair, in its natural nappy state, is not desirable – or profitable.
In a surprising twist rapper-cum-actor Ice-T and Rev. Al Sharpton, two men with an intimate knowledge of perms, give enlightened and eloquent takes on the absurdity and misplaced values that our preoccupation with attaining straight hair often poses in our community. Sharpton really brings it home by making the point that those profiting the most off of the black hair industry are not black, and that no other group allows outsiders to come into their communities to sell a coveted commodity back to them.
This all culminates into what for me was the film’s most arresting moment: Rock goes to a Hindu temple in India and observes the practice of tonsure, where hundreds of women, men and children have their hair shaved off as an offering to the gods. Women here in the U.S. buy and wear much of that hair.
What’s woefully lacking in Good Hair is historical context. Rock never really explores the roots of why so many black women find their natural hair inconvenient and bothersome, pertinent information that could have easily been included without sacrificing humor. (Books like Hair Story by journalists Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps and Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture and African-American Women by Princeton professor Noliwe Rooks could have provided him with more than enough research on the topic.)
Rock even features commentary from A’Lelia Bundles without ever identifying her as the heir to the black hair care pioneer Madam C.J. Walker. Nor does he cite Walkers legacy and contributions to the hair care industry. And with the exception of Tracie Thoms, an actress who adamantly defends her choice for wearing natural hair, you don’t hear from those on the other side of coin – black women who’ve made a conscious decision not to succumb to conventional straight hair dictates.
Good Hair is hardly revolutionary, but it is entertaining thanks in a large part to Rock’s effectiveness as an interviewer and narrator. While it doesn’t necessarily tell black folks much we don’t already know, it may work to start dialogues about how we still cling to outdated notions about our beauty and acceptability, and make us question and scrutinize the way we spend our money in our quest for what’s “good.”
Speaking of good hair, be sure to check out my article of the same name in the current issue of Heart & Soul. In it you’ll learn how you can have beautiful, healthy hair whether you wear yours straightened or natural, in a weave or in locks. There’s also plenty of care recommendations and product suggestions from the pro stylists I interviewed.
On another hair note, NaturallyCurly.com has teamed with Miss Jessie’s hair care products for the 2009 Grow Out Challenge. From now until March 31, 2010 they are challenging women to shed their over-processed and damaged hair in order to transition to healthier natural tresses. To start the process, simply become a registered member of NaturallyCurly, then create blog posts and upload images to document your progress. You can also read blogs by other contestants. Each month four winners will be selected to receive a personal hair prescription and products from Miss Jessie’s valued at approximately $150.00. For tips on transitioning or for additional information on the 2009 Grow Out Challenge, visit: www.naturallycurly.com/growoutchallenge.
Julia Chance is senior editor, beauty and fashion, at Heart & Soul. Also read an interview by contributing editor Joyce E. Davis with Good Hair co-producer Nelson George in the Downtime section of the October/November issue.